Late Night (2019) ☆☆☆(3/4): A plucky comedy writer and her fastidious boss

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“Late Night” is often so predictable that you can see through the whole story right from the beginning, but it is a fairly enjoyable comedy film nonetheless thanks to its two colorful female lead performers. Whenever they share the screen together, they elevate the movie to considerable degree through their undeniable comic chemistry, and you will surely get enough laughs for overlooking a number of weak spots in the movie.

Emma Thompson plays Katherine Newbury, a middle-aged British lady who has been one of the most successful late-night talk show hosts in US for around 30 years. While everything seems to be going well on the surface, she belatedly comes to realize that her late-night talk show has been seriously declining in its popularity during last several years, so she becomes determined to find any possible way to recharge and save her talk show, but, alas, no one around her is particularly willing to talk about what to do in front of her mainly because of her harsh and fastidious attitude.

It soon becomes clear to Katherine that she needs someone different from a bunch of male comedy writers who have dully worked under her for many years, and that is how a young Indian woman named Molly Patel (Mindy Kaling) comes into the picture. While she has worked in a chemical plant for several years, Molly has aspired to be a comedy writer someday, so she did not hesitate at all when she happened to get a chance for applying for a new position in Katherine’s writing staff, and she certainly gets excited when she is instantly hired by Brad (Denis O’Hare), who is Katherine’s long-suffering right-hand guy and knows well Katherine more than anyone else except Katherine’s husband Walter (John Lithgow).

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Of course, it does not take much time for Molly to discern how difficult and demanding it is to work under Katherine. After learning that the current season may be the last one for her talk show, Katherine demands lots of focus and attention from her writing staff, and Molly soon finds herself facing some harsh treatments from her boss, who may like Molly’s honest and forthright attitude but does not hesitate to criticize her comments at all. In addition, Molly often feels awkward while not welcomed that much by her male colleagues including Tom (Reid Scott), and there is an amusing running gag involved with the toilet for women in their workplace.

However, as many of you already expected, there soon comes a moment of breakthrough for our heroine. When Molly sensibly handles a bunch of reporters eager to get a comment from Katherine after her rather unpleasant incident with a social media star, she surely impresses Katherine a lot, and she also gets a good advice from Walter during their accidental encounter. Although they still do not interact that well with each other, Katherine comes to respect Molly’s aspiration and talent, and that eventually leads to a number of notable changes which make Katherine’s talk show a lot more popular than before.

Although the screenplay by Mindy Kaling, who also co-produced the film, lags a bit during its third act before arriving at the predictable finale, the movie maintains its lightweight mood well, and it also solidly establishes some emotional ground for more serious moments later in the film. While there are some genuinely funny moments such as the one where Katherine finds her groove back through her impromptu stand-up comedy performance, there are also several heartfelt scenes such when Katherine comes to recognize to Molly that she really needs Molly (Is this a spoiler?), and director Nisha Ganatra did a solid job of balancing the film well between humor and drama.

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Above all, the movie depends a lot on Kaling and her co-lead performer. As shown from her performance in American TV sitcom series “The Office”, Kaling is a likable comic actress with considerable talent and personality, and she surely brings enough spirit and warmth to her likable character. On the opposite, Emma Thompson, who can be effortlessly hilarious as shown from a number of her comic turns during recent years (I still fondly remember her quirky supporting character in “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban” (2004), by the way), is steadily unflappable as having a lot of fun with those bitingly juicy moments throughout the film, and I was not so surprised to learn that Kaling wrote the role of Katherine specifically for Thompson.

In case of the other notable main cast members of the film, most of them fill their respective supporting roles as much as demanded. While Hugh Dancy and Amy Ryan are relatively under-utilized, Reid Scott and Denis O’Hare manage to have each own moment to shine, and John Lithgow, who has been one of my favourite character actors since I watched “Raising Cain” (1992) 23 years ago, has a sincere moment later in the movie when Walter and Katherine come to have a serious talk on their long marital relationship.

On the whole, “Late Night” is funny and engaging enough for recommendation, and I appreciate how it brings some fresh air to its genre territory via its two strong lead female characters. Although I still think it could push its story and characters harder for edgier laughs, the movie confirms to us Kaling’s comic talent again, and I certainly hope she will soon move onto better things in the future.

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